Middle East

Saddam and the Yugoslav link
By David Isenberg

Just when the furor was winding down over the reported acquisition by Iraq of Kolchuga air defense radars from the Ukraine, a new controversy over Iraqi weapons acquisitions has burst into view; namely, the purchase of spare parts for Iraqi fighter jets from a firm based in Bosnia-Herzegovina and assistance from Yugoslavia in organizing Iraqi air defenses.

Although the news is just now making the rounds, the story itself first broke over a month ago. According to the UK Sunday Times, highly skilled officers were sent from Yugoslavia to help Saddam. Reportedly these are the same people who performed impressively during the 1998-99 Kosovo war, when their use of supposedly outdated technology helped much of the army’s hardware to escape destruction by American airstrikes.

On September 20, the Banja Luka Reporter of Serbia ran a three-page article noting that the US government had issued a demarche, a diplomatic registering of official concern, concerning the Orao Aviation Institute in Bijeljina, part of Bosnia. According to the demarche, the institute had helped maintain the Iraqi air force and the air defenses that have so often been up against US and British fighter aircraft patrolling the no-fly zone. Such aid would violate UN Security Council resolutions.

The article noted that the institute, located 100 kilometers west of the Yugoslav capital of Belgrade, could also be maintaining jet engines for Iraq and possibly supplying engines or engine parts for the MiG-21 Fishbed fighters and, theoretically, perhaps, for the MiG-23 Flogger. Some things could have been sent from Bijeljina, and some things could be done on site by Orao's technicians.

The institute has been in existence in one form or another since 1944, when it was known as the Aviation Workshop No 169. In 1957, it became the Aviation Technical Maintenance Institute, taking on the task of maintaining jet engines, and later moving on to turbo-jet engines. Apart from maintaining engines for domestic jets, it also serviced Tumanski jet engines for the Soviet supersonic MiG-21, which was the main fighter interceptor of the Yugoslav Air Force and the air defense wing of the JNA (Yugoslav People's Army). In 1988, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY) procured from the Soviet Union a squadron of modern MiG-29 Fulcrums, and the institute embarked on a program to maintain the aircrafts' engines.

Given that history, the Orao institute could be of great use to Iraq. Iraq has the MiG-21 and the MiG-29, and it is known that the military industry of former Yugoslavia cooperated closely with the Iraqis. In 1989, Iraq sent at least eight MiG-21Bs and nine of the newer MiG-23MLs, which the former JNA did not have in its arsenal, to be repaired at the Zmaj Aviation Technical Institute at Velika Gorica near Zagreb. The repair work on the engines for these Iraqi MiG-23s could not be carried out in just one location in the SFRY - some engine parts were serviced at Zmaj, some in Slovenia, and the maintenance of the turbines was carried out at Orao.

It should be remembered that even if the charges were true, Iraq would not have gained a lot. Even if Iraq's fighter aircraft were in the best possible state (which they are not), the Iraqis would stand no chance against American air forces who are much better equipped and trained.

But if the charges are true, it is just the start. This is because the Orao Aviation Institute is not your ordinary private sector firm. Organizationally, it comes under the Ministry of Defense of the Serb Republic, and it is headed by an officer in the Serb Republic Army, Colonel Milan Prica. If assistance has indeed been given to Iraq, it is highly improbable that the relevant officials in the Serb Republic Government did not know about it. And it is at least questionable that the UN Stabilization Force (SFOR) did not know about it.

Some experts believe that Iraq helped Belgrade by giving it some information as it prepared its air defenses against the NATO strikes in 1999 during the war over Kosovo, and that Serbia passed on its latest experiences in air defense to Iraq. Iraqi experts are certainly interested in how the Yugoslav army succeeded in bringing down a stealth F-117A.

On October 22, it was reported that Yugoimport, a major Yugoslav weapons dealer, had exported military equipment to Iraq, and Serb experts were helping Saddam Hussein defend Iraq's air space against US attacks. Yugoimport is based in Belgrade.

Orao is in Republika Srpska, the portion of Bosnia-Herzegovina whose population is mostly Serbian. Until Bosnia won its independence with a war that ended in 1995, both companies were part of Yugoslavia's vast military-industrial complex.

During a NATO inspection on October 11-13, NATO peacekeeping troops in Bosnia raided the facilities of the Orao company and discovered several documents allegedly linking the company and the arms dealer with weapons exports to Iraq. A NATO spokesman said a preliminary inspection of Orao uncovered the existence of a contract linking the factory to an "unreported export of weapons systems".

According to the Belgrade-based daily Blic, which first reported the discovery, the documents indicate that an unspecified number of Yugoslav experts are currently assigned to install the equipment at an undisclosed Iraqi military facility.

The Yugoslav Defense Ministry said in a statement that it had not approved the export of arms to Iraq and that it would investigate the alleged breach of the UN arms embargo and "undertake measures against possible culprits". A high-ranking Yugoslav military official confirmed the Blic report to Associated Press and said that Yugoimport "acted as an intermediary between Orao and the Iraqi government. Orao did not have contacts [in Iraq], so they approached Yugoimport."

Yugoimport enjoys a virtual monopoly in the export and import of arms and is known for having had close links with Saddam's regime during the 1990s. Yugoimport denied the Blic report in a statement but added that "it is possible" that some Serbs have been involved in "a private business venture" with Iraq in the name of Yugoimport.

In an interview with BBC Yugoslavia published Oct 25, Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica addressed some of the allegations: "When we came to power in October 2000, we knew very well what state of affairs we had inherited. We know today, as we did then, that we were under sanctions for 10 years and that the economy, despite the sanctions, had to function somehow. Therefore it is mean and hypocritical for anyone to pretend to be extremely surprised and almost offended because someone in all likelihood - and in this case it is Yugoimport - violated UN sanctions by continuing old practices."

The BBC also is reporting that as early as the 1970s, the Yugoslav Federal Directorate for Trade in Special Purpose Products (now Yugoimport) began cooperation with Iraq, when construction companies were contracted to build a major arms factory near Baghdad.

This cooperation continued until the 1990s, when the United Nations passed a resolution banning arms exports to Iraq. A meeting between Major-General Jovan Cekovic, director of Yugoimport, and Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Taha Yassin Ramadan is alleged to have taken place at that time. According to some unofficial sources, at that meeting a deal was struck on the export of weapons manufactured by the aviation institute in Bijeljina.

The documents uncovered by NATO also allegedly indicate that in the case of a UN inspection, Yugoslav experts currently in Iraq would dismantle the equipment within 10 days, and that the Iraqis would be expected to hide it until the inspectors were gone, Blic said.

Western officials familiar with the documentation say that Yugoimport had gone to great lengths to cover up its work, while at the same time reassuring Yugoslav and Serbian officials that nothing was being sent to Iraq. According to the Blic article, in a letter addressed to the Iraqi Department of Defense dated September 25, Yugoimport officials "asked the Iraqis to remove Orao's name from all of the documents used for maintenance, and to take off Serbo-Croatian language instructions". The letter also allegedly told the Iraqis to obliterate the Orao company logo, which is stamped on equipment.

In addition, the letter reportedly said that "in the event of United Nations weapons inspections, Yugoimport's experts would be able to disassemble all of the equipment within 10 days and that the Iraqis then should hide the equipment. When the inspections are over, Yugoimport would again assemble the equipment within 10 days."

Former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, now on trial at the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague, allied himself with the Iraqi president, but current president Kostunica said the country had since severed those links.

Under Milosevic, Yugoslavia maintained close military links with Saddam's regime, servicing Iraqi air force MiG jets near Belgrade and taking part in the construction of Iraqi military facilities, including bunkers in presidential palaces in Baghdad. The Yugoslav army earlier this month said that it had discontinued providing military aid to Baghdad, saying that it hoped to forge closer ties with NATO. Earlier this month, Kostunica denied that Yugoslav military experts were helping Saddam organize his air defenses.

On October 22, the United States raised the stakes beyond the repair of Iraqi planes, saying that it had presented evidence to senior Serbian government ministers of much broader military collaboration, including assistance with air defense networks, surface-to-air-missile technology and munitions.

As the scandal has escalated in recent days, the Yugoslav government has engaged in damage control efforts. On October 22, the Yugoslav government released a statement saying that it had dismissed Jovan Cekovic, the former army general who chairs Yugoimport, and fired Yugoslav Deputy Defense Minister Gen Ivan Djokic, an assistant to the federal defense minister in charge of military equipment and weapons. Yugoimport was ordered to close its office in Baghdad, according to the government statement.

But those dismissals are not likely to be the only ones. The sale of weapons and military equipment to Iraq was under direct control of military security services, which in the view of some experts means that the chief of the Counterintelligence Service, General Aca Tomic, too, must have been familiar with the deals. Under the current system of military affairs, arms exports fall within the authority of the Defense Ministry. Through General Djokic, the chain of command would lead upward to Defense Minister Velimir Radojevic. According to Belgrade Radio, Radojevic has already prepared his letter of resignation, but he has been warned that he should not make any statements to the media until further notice.

The Yugoslav government also announced that it would set up a commission to investigate whether there have been irregularities in the defense ministry in the process of issuing licenses for exporting military equipment and arms and, if so, to propose adequate measures.

There are still many questions to be answered. Among them, according to a special report by Jane’s Intelligence Digest:

  • Why did the UN approve Yugoimport, a well-established arms producer, as a major supplier of grain to Iraq during its humanitarian "food-for-oil" program? Yugoimport is known to have supplied Iraq in the past with Orkan multiple rocket launchers and to have upgraded Saddam's MiG-23 fighters (until this week, Yugoimport still had an office in Baghdad), so why was an arms supplier chosen over other firms with more-obvious track records in grain exports?

  • Why did the Kostunica government allow Yugoimport to continue its activities in Iraq for two years without question? The Yugoslav interior minister is head of the Yugoimport board, so how can the government not have known about Yugoimport's activities?

  • Former Deputy Defense Minister Ivan Jokic, sacked this week following the US allegations against Yugoimport, stated in January that Yugoslavia would be focusing on the export of its military "know how". What, therefore, has Yugoimport been exporting to Iraq?

  • If Yugoimport has the ability to keep Iraq's MiG fighters flying, what other military know-how has been transferred?

    (©2002 Asia Times Online Co Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact content@atimes.com for information on our sales and syndication policies.)
    Oct 26, 2002

    Iraq under US military rule? (Oct 17, '02)

    Iraq: Use of force is unavoidable (Oct 5, '02)

    Iraq: In all but name, the war's on (Aug 1702)


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